Human trafficking in the United States, more prevalent than you think

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    human trafficking (Photo Shutterstock)

    human trafficking (Photo Shutterstock)

    By Teresita Chavez Pedrosa/Hispanic National Bar Association

    “Latinas, African-Americans and indigenous women are disproportionately affected by human trafficking,” Norma Ramos, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) a non-profit organization dedicated to abolishing modern day slavery, told those attending the Hispanic National Bar Association’s 2nd Annual Human Trafficking Conference at the University of Miami last Friday. While there are 15,000 to 18,000 people trafficked in the United States each year, Ramos stated, the “overwhelming majority” are the country’s own citizens.

    “The worse thing about the movie Taken,” said Miami Springs Councilman Dan Espino, referring to the 2008 film starring Liam Neeson in which his on-screen daughter is abducted in France “is that it created the impression that human trafficking is something that happens over there.” The truth is that Miami is third in the nation in the human trafficking, behind New York and California.

    “Everything that makes South Florida a great place to live,” said U.S. Prosecutor Barbara Martinez referencing diversity, the weather, its geographical position as a gateway to other nations, “makes it easier for traffickers to hide.” Martinez, who has worked with colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice to secure various human trafficking convictions, discussed a case involving Mexican nationals. The women had to service 30 to 40 “clients” per day, for $20 each. They had no days off. Every week or so, they were transferred to a new location in Florida. “We don’t always report these cases to the media, in order to protect our victim-based approach” added Martinez.

    Victim-based view of prostitution

    “Prostitution is the oldest oppression,” said Ramos, who believes that calling prostitution a profession implies that its existence is inevitable. Panelists agreed that the incidence of prostitution was exacerbated by poverty, but was caused by factors that include gender-based inequalities and vulnerabilities. According to Martinez “people are vulnerable for different reasons.” Foster children are vulnerable. She has also seen cases where affluent and educated girls have sneaked out of their homes while their parents slept and lured into prostitution by a boyfriend.

    Some women, including college co-eds, are made to believe that prostitution is a glamorous form of earning extra cash. Although expressly forbidding communications regarding cash in exchange for sex on their sites, sugar daddy web-based dating services are gaining visibility among university students. Catherine A. Mackinnon, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, Special Gender Adviser to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (The Hague) and “the Malcolm X of the Women’s Movement” according to Ramos, reported having had students who turned to prostitution while in school. “None of them are alive today,” MacKinnon admitted. Ramos challenged: “Do we really want to live in a country where prostitution is seen as a form of financial aid?”

    A person prostituted through force, fraud or coercion, is a victim under federal law. “Victimizing her (under the law) raises her status,” said MacKinnon, while “criminalizing him lowers his privilege.” The law is broad enough to prohibit the non-physical versions of force, fraud and coercion, such as mental manipulation. Minors are considered victims even in the absence of force, fraud and coercion. Actual physical transfer of the victim is not necessary to meet the federal law’s definition of human trafficking.

    U.S. federal law also provides protection and services to victims of human trafficking. These may include migratory relief for otherwise undocumented victims. Community-based groups facilitate food, shelter and other services to victims. According to Protection Consular Luz Elena Lopez Rodea, the Mexican government, through its consulate offices, has an array of services available to trafficked Mexican nationals. These include help with legal representation.

    Like with the racketeering laws that once helped the government reach and prosecute the heads of major crime families, the human trafficking federal laws target the enterprise. “The bodies and lives of these women are appropriated for them to be exploited by organized crime,” said Ramos, who distinguished these pimps from free speech groups who in some capacity actually defend women.

    “We should all be offended,” said Espino, acknowledging all the opportunities that his Cuban parents, and him as a first-generation American, have enjoyed as a result of hard work and study. “These (human) traffickers have turned the land of freedom and opportunity into one of oppression and torture.”

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    Source: Teresita Chavez Pedrosa/Hispanic National Bar Association

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